My vision really was 200 to 300 children maximum, but I did not know what God would do. I got the names and addresses and with the help of volunteers, we went to two different malls -- one in Birmingham, Alabama; one in Montgomery, Alabama -- and we decorated Christmas trees with paper angels, red for girls and green for boys.

 

We advertised that people could come and buy Christmas for an angel. I made mention of the fact that children are victims of crime because they are not responsible for what their parent has done.

 

That really struck a cord with people. And I realized after the fact that people, even people who are not in the church, think of Christmas as children and family and presents. They were touched by the thought that there were children who would not get gifts, and in their generosity they bought gifts. 

 

In less than a week, I had to go back not only to the women's prison, but to several other prisons and say I need more names - I've run out. At the end of that very first Christmas, 556 children got Angel Tree gifts.

 

That was the beginning. Last Christmas, some 600,000 children received Christmas gifts in the United States alone. The need is ongoing, of course. There are still many more children who have not been included. 

 

Yet, it's important that we remember that it's not just about the toys; we're actually demonstrating the real Gospel message. God so loved the world that when He saw our need, He sent us the first Christmas gift, which is Jesus, the Savior of the world. 

 

Through these tangible gifts, we want to communicate a message that their Creator loves them and wants to give them eternal life.  And that's not just for the children, but for their families as well. 

 

Many times, inmates rather tentatively give that name to the volunteers, not really believing that their child will receive Christmas gifts.  Then, in January and February, our Bible studies in prison doubled and tripled in size because inmates would come to the door of the chapel and say, "Is this the bunch that bought Christmas for my child?"

 

They came, really, out of a sense of obligation. But they stayed and heard the Gospel. Indirectly, we realized that it's an awesome tool of evangelism to the inmates. The inmates never see the volunteers, yet by reaching out to the children, God also reaches back to their parent.  

 

Crosswalk.com:  Looking back, how does it feel to know that your work has borne so much fruit and has become an institution?

 

Beard:  Well, it's awesome. Every year I'm even more amazed by how God uses us and allows us to participate in His work -- because it really is His work. I'm grateful and know that anything that lasts this long and gets this big only does because of God, not through anything that we do.

 

I don't know about you, but my visions are never this grand. Of course, He saves us to bear fruit and to bear fruit that remains. I don't know that my life would have counted for anything so significant if it hadn't been for my failures. Isn't that something?

If you would like information on how to get involved with Angel Tree, please visit http://www.angeltree.org/angeltree/channelroot/home/